In the 221 days since we last saw Bill Belichick’s squad take the field, much has changed. There has been plenty of roster turnover, changes made to the coaching staff and in the front office, and a major shift in expectations. Following the franchise’s first losing season in two decades, Bill Belichick went on a spending spree and drafted a first-round quarterback for the very first time.
The Patriots reconstructed their roster; adding talent in every phase of the game. Building such a talented group has fans buzzing, especially for tonight when they will be able to see their new stars for the first time in uniform. In addition to the excitement of seeing new players for the first time, tonight will be a showcase for younger talent to stake their claim to a roster spot.
In an exciting time for all to kickoff football season, there are plenty of players looking to make a name for themselves. Here are the five that you should keep an eye on:
QB Mac Jones
There is a certain palpable feeling that comes with the debut of a first-round quarterback, preseason or not. Throw in the fact that Mac Jones is the first quarterback Bill Belichick has ever drafted in the first round and is essentially the replacement to the greatest quarterback of all time; Thursday is an important first step into this franchise’s next chapter.
Whether he plays a lot or a little, Mac Jones will throw an NFL pass for the very first time at Gillette Stadium in front of his home fans. That is certainly something you won’t want to miss.
He’s finally getting out of a linebacker’s number as well so that should be a nice change.
WR/ST Kristian Wilkerson
Much has been made about Kristian Wilkerson’s training camp performances at wide receiver and on special teams, as well as his budding relationship with team leader Matthew Slater. Wilkerson has flashed the ability to be a contributor at both spots throughout the first few weeks of camp.
Now for the first time, last year’s practice squadder will have the opportunity to see real game action. He will almost certainly get chances offensively but the real reason you’ll want to watch is because of special teams. There is no way of replicating those live special teams reps at practice. This is Wilkerson’s first real chance to show that his work with Slater and commitment to becoming a good special teams player is paying off.
We will be keeping our eyes peeled on kickoff and punt coverage units tonight to see Wilkerson’s first live reps.
DB Joejuan Williams
It is truly a make-or-break preseason for Joejuan Williams. The former second-round draft pick has not been able to break through the glass ceiling in his first two seasons, and without showing steady improvement, it’s hard to see him doing so this year.
One thing that we will have our eye on is whether the Patriots will truly take Williams up on his offer to play in multiple spots. He has spent time at both cornerback and safety in the past but mostly just as a way to matchup against tight ends.
Seeing the rep share for Williams should give you an idea of how the Patriots plan to deploy him in 2021.
RB Rhamondre Stevenson
Running backs coach Ivan Fears didn’t hold back when asked what rookie Rhamondre Stevenson needed to improve on. “Everything,” said Fears, a notorious tough grader on rookies.
Well, Stevenson should have his chance to work on “everything” tonight as the Patriots rarely deploy their top runners in the preseason. James White is about to turn 30, and Sony Michel and Damien Harris have had their fair share of injuries. There is no need for the Patriots to add any miles on those players’ tires.
So that means Stevenson, alongside J.J. Taylor, will see the majority of the work tonight, giving him the chance to show the combination of power and speed that made him a fourth round pick.
K Quinn Nordin
It’s been six days since kicker Nick Folk last practiced, making it unlikely he returns for the game tonight. That will leave the kicking duties to rookie undrafted free agent Quinn Nordin, who will make his NFL debut. It’s a big opportunity for the former Michigan Wolverine. After going a combined 14-for-14 with three kicks made from 50+ yards in the Patriots’ two in-stadium practices, Nordin will finally be able to do it for real against a live rush.
With a strong performance, Nordin will have the chance to make sure he doesn’t need to look for any more jobs on LinkedIn.